The Rev. Canon Dr. William J. Danaher
There used to be this songwriter that I liked to listen to, and in his live show, there would be this moment in which he would say that he would be bothered by “these things.” He’d pick up these things in our everyday life. He’d say, “This bothers me for a philosophical reason.” By that, he meant that this problem or this experience that he was encountering, it revealed a whole network of power around these symbolic relations that were surrounding us that made us a little bit less than human. Things that somehow dehumanized us just bit by bit. And that bothered him, he said, for a philosophical reason. Because we were called to be fully human, and the things that opposed that should be opposed and not accepted in our lives.
Just the other day, I had one of those moments where I had something that bothered me for a philosophical reason. I was in Costco. And usually when I visit Costco, it’s this moment of wonder and light. I love going to Costco. I love all their food. Their food tastes good no matter what they make, and the quantities are truly gargantuan. There’s not anything that Costco makes that’s not good. And I love walking in and seeing the incredible TVs, and I think to myself and I say sometimes to Claire, if only we could buy a larger TV with more definition – maybe one of the new ones with some curves, we’d be so happy as a family. We’d all bundle up and watch the TV. It would heal every division and tension.
But most of all, what I love about Costco are the samples. I am either the world’s best sampler, or the world’s worst sampler, because I sample everything, but I buy nothing. Years ago, I discovered in Canada that it’s an unwritten rule that if you sample something you are immediately placed under obligation to buy. And so many Canadians, when they’re sending out samples, they’ll say, “Oh no thank you. No, thank you. I’m fine.” And I, on the other hand, am an American and I loved to take all those samples. And I remember being in New York City with some Canadians. I said, “Watch this.” And I sampled some ice cream and then said, “I’m good.” And they were stunned. I had broken some kind of unwritten moral code.
In any event, I was in Costco. I loved it that I can do anything. Yesterday we were shopping, I had the cheese bread, I had the ham and mashed potatoes, I had calamari. But the other day when I was in Costco, and I saw this group of people start run-walking. Kind of trodding in the direction of one sample place. And it was like 40 people just started to converge on this poor woman who was trying to work with a toaster oven. And immediately I got intrigued and I said, “What is it? What is it?” And I started to run alongside them, and they said, “Pigs in a blanket.” And so, I don’t usually eat pigs in a blanket. But just the fact that they were free and samples, I started to run with everybody, and then I realized there’s too many of us; it’s going to be like a bank panic. The poor woman could only get about 40 of those little samples.
I immediately saw another sample station, and so I turned to it and I went over there and I picked up the cup and I said, “What is this?” And I immediately put it in my mouth. She said, “Craisins.” Craisins? Who likes craisins? They’re cranberries that have been dried and sweetened to be like tangy little raisins. They’re like crazy raisins, craisins. Who doesn’t know what a craisin tastes like? I ate three cups. What is it about samples? They just keep me going. I enjoy them.
There are times I go to Papa Joe’s and I have their chocolate covered pretzels, because I know I could only have the samples. If I bought the whole bag of chocolate covered pretzels, I would eat the entire bag before I get home and my lunch would just sit. And I would be spending the afternoon in just desolation and disgust and self-loathing. What is it about samples? Well, this started to bother me for a philosophical reason. Because I realized that samples are the way in which Costco keeps you wanting and needing and desiring something that they’re selling. So it doesn’t matter if you buy the calamari. Once you’ve tasted the calamari, it’s meant to feed just enough and to stimulate the dopamine in your brain and to keep you wanting and needing and desiring. And that is what they do. And that is what actually other corporations do.
I was reading the other day, that there was a Google executive that stepped away, because he realized he was placed in the area of persuasion. And that means you have to convince the person who is your consumer to step away from their normal interactions and to use your app or your program. And it’s steered in such a way to stimulate the dopamine. It’s the way it works. And everybody is implicated in this system. All of us want a sense of having something we don’t possess. We all feel needs for something that we actually don’t need. We all desire something that we aren’t even aware we desired until we see it and suddenly we’re aware of some kind of lack.
And I want to suggest to you that this is a matrix that we live in today. It’s a kind of energy field. It’s a thing that locks us in and implicates every one of us at every layer of our society. Now the French philosopher Jean Baudrillard once said that capitalism was inherently addictive. And by that he meant that capitalism created a system in which people are constantly kept in a state of wanting, desiring and needing. And a lot of his other thoughts don’t make a whole lot of sense, so I won’t share them with you. But on that, I think he is touching a nerve and approaching the truth. We live in a world in which it seems like there’s never any point of satisfaction that we can truly reach. And part of this is that we tend to associate with these material goods: symbolic and spiritual values.
We want a bigger TV, and we hope that our family will suddenly find new coalescence around it. We want a new home or a different backyard. And we see ourselves coming together. We are wanting, needing, desiring beings. And this power is everywhere; it implicates all of us. In the past, we used to think that power operated vertically from the top down and, sometimes in moments of revolution, from the bottom up. But I believe power is like a force field. Each of us is locked in; each of us is powerless. And yet, each of us contributes by our own desires and our own wants and our own needs to this larger system. And the problem in all of this is that none of the spiritual and deeper meaning that we seek in our world can be addressed by the materiality that we pursue. And we all know this as the deepest truth that’s as clear to us as the hand before our faces.
And yet we all know that those things are so hard to come by. They lie so much out of our power. And so perhaps in some sense the frenetic activity that comes when we go to places where there are samples and other opportunities, these exist to fill a need that they themselves are powerless to fill. For me, the moment of recognition came when I realized that these little cups that I receive when I go to Costco, I only have about six of them, are exactly the same as the pills – the cup that carries the pills when you go to a hospital. Am I going to Costco for nourishment, or am I going to Costco for a little bit of medication?
A little bit of medication against the discomfort I feel – the disease I suffer from. I think all of us know a little bit of what that feels like. Today, we have an encouragement from our scriptures, and that encouragement is framed under the word repent. John the Baptist comes in the Gospel of Matthew and calls us to repentance. “Change the way we think” is what repentance means in the Greek. Metanoia: To change your mindset. And I think that we want to have our mindsets changed. But we often feel powerless to do so. Often times this message of repentance is delivered as a kind of voice from on high, or the voice from an outsider who stands in judgment of us.
And certainly, one way to read the Gospel of Matthew today is to see that operating when John is out in the wilderness dressed as an ascetic, calling the people of Judea to repent. But one way I think to see repentance is not something that comes from outside, rather it’s something that each of us can share together. When it comes to Christmas and Advent, I realize that no matter what I can do or buy, no matter what need I could possibly satisfy, I realize that I go through the season longing. I want more of the joy, and peace, and love that is promised in our scriptures than I see in my world today. I want more of this incredible light that shines in the midst of darkness.
And I suspect that you want these things too. I suspect if each of us could step back from this matrix for one moment and think to ourselves “What do we really want? What do we really need? What do we really desire?” I think we’ll come together as a community of longing, and that longing might be enough to hold us together and wait again for the surprising manifestation of Christ in our lives. At the end of the reading from Matthew today, there’s a key moment that identifies what Jesus does that is special. John says “I baptize you with water for repentance, but there’s another who will come after me, who will come and baptize you with spirit and fire.” And by that, he wasn’t meaning so much that there would be destruction in the wake of Jesus – so much that there would actually be transformation through Christ.
Because through Christ you and I experience new desires, new needs, new love, new wants by being in relation with him. Because only Jesus has come to redeem humanity from the inside in the midst of all the things that make us who we are. And only Jesus comes to inhabit us and to live within us so that we might live within him. So this year, this advent, take a moment to step back. Take a moment to come together. Take a moment to recognize our desire for the love and joy and peace that comes only when God comes among us as Jesus. And let us ask God to reframe us, and change us, and make us new again.
The poem I’ve given you for today was done by Theodore Parker Ferris. He was a wonderful rector of Trinity, Copley Square, in Boston. And I found this a few years ago and it doesn’t carry a name, so I named it a prayer for Advent. And it gives us an image of what it might be for us to develop new desires for God, new wants, new needs based on that Christ story that we’re about to rehearse. This is what it says: “By way of Bethlehem lead us, oh Lord to newness of life. By the innocence of the Christ Child, renew our simple trust. By the tenderness of Mary, deliver us from cruelty and hardness of heart. By the patience of Joseph, save us from all rash judgment and ill-tempered action. By the shepherd’s watch, open our eyes to the signs of thy coming. By the wise men’s journey, keep our searching spirits from fainting. By the music of the heavenly choir, put to shame the clamor of the earth.” By the shining of a star, guide our feet into the way of peace.”
This Advent and Christmas may you find newness of life. May you recover your innocence through simple trust. May the tenderness of Mary fill your hearts and banish the cruelty and hardness that is there. May the patience of Joseph keep you from making any rash judgments and ill-tempered actions. May you have the watchfulness of a shepherd. May you have the wisdom of a wise man who is courageous yet cunning. May the music of the spheres lift your spirits. And may the Christ star lead you. Amen.